Welcome to my annual countdown of the year's best.
50. The Wire - HAIM
Of all the acts likely to sign with Jay-Z, I'm betting a trio of Jewish sisters from the San Fernando Valley with roots in classic Americana records would not be high on many people's lists. But thankfully they did, as their well-tuned voices and ear for hooks are a treasure. Having suffered a few false starts (the group orginally formed in 2006 before side and solo ventures halted momentum), the group finally released their debut album this year after their EP landed in 2012. Packed full of sweet-sounding compositions, the girls' influences are palpable all over this record, from Fleetwood Mac to Edward Sharpe to the Eagles, whose own 'Heartache Tonight' comes dangerously close to being ripped off in the opening seconds of 'The Wire'. Ignoring that faux pas is feasible, however moving past their sometimes-conjested verses and so-hip-it-hurts image may take a little longer. But for now, at least they've nailed the music.
49. Green Garden - Laura Mvula
I couldn't help drawing an immediate comparison to Amy when I first played this. Something about that brisk, one-take quality conjured up shades of Back To Black, however they were short lived. Mvula knows her voice could rollick around any song she wants, but keeping it on pace with every handclap and tinkering bell on 'Green Garden' means she stays in command every step of the way. That's not to say her voice doesn't conquer in the end though; her backing vocals are out of this world.
48. Strong - London Grammar
And so the first of Florence Welch's inheritors checks in. As relative unknowns, Hannah Reid and co. can't quite summon up the same fanfare as that of the flame-haired virtuoso they glorify, but tender, throbbing tales like the funereal 'Strong' have fleetly sat the trip-pop threesome in such esteemed company as Lorde, Birdy, and fellow Brit Ellie Goulding. The lugubrious atmosphere of the song is made to feel all the more bleak once Reid's lyrics begin to reel out. "I might seem so strong / I might speak so long / I've never been so wrong." Hardly a pick-me-up, but still meritorious of repeated plays.
47. Follow Your Arrow - Kacey Musgraves
I've wondered a lot recently what life must truly be like for teens in this post-Gaga, post-Glee world. Appeals for self-acceptance and to love ourselves were never as apparent when I was growing up, and I question (out of curiousity more than pessimism) just how much - if any - easier does it make life for those battling oppression and self-doubt. Of course it's down to the individual in each instance, but if any good can be spread across the board I guess it's reassuring to know that things are at least being talked about more than they were ten years ago. Country star Kacey Musgraves nails every damned-if-you-do concept with the dryest of wit and most pronounced of attitudes. "If you save yourself for marriage / You're a bore / If you don't save yourself for marriage / You're a whore-able person." And that's just the opening line. In a world where country music crossed over for real, there'd be no stopping her.
46. Count On Me - Chase & Status feat. Moko
Big beat duo Chase & Status facilitated a trend I was elated to see forming last year at the inclusion of Bright Light Bright Light's 'Feel It' in my Top 50; and that was mainstream music's re-lighting of the fire with '90s dance. Upon first play I was absorbed by the track's mammoth synths, so much more impassioned than those on every lesser garage cut of the last twelve months. Rising Soul singer Moko's vocal is like a blade, piercing through every note she touches; another calling card of early '90s breakbeat and Italo house music rarely executed today. With the genre of choice threatening to blow any way the wind takes it these days, I'm hoping 2014 is the year this sub-class of dance swings firmly into gear.
45. Gas Pedal - Sage The Gemini feat. IAmSu
For a pretty subdued sounding track, Sage The Gemini's gritty 'Gas Pedal' sure knows how to up the adrenalin. Opening with a ghostly siren and fizzy bassline, producer IAmSu lays the perfect sleepy platform for he and Sage to trade quips ranging from big booties to Tyler Perry, never evading the track's rigorous undertone. Bringing to mind fellow hyphy rapper E-40's titillating crunk smash, 'U and Dat', 'Gas Pedal' buzzes along with the same commodious boom and speaker-splitting thump the Bay Area is famous for.
44. Love Me Again - John Newman
English soul singer John Newman ranked in last year's countdown thanks to his feature - or show-stealing spot, really - on liquid funk quarted Rudimental's exceptional 'Feel The Love'. That same ardent distinction in his voice has earned him a spot this year with his solo debut, the cracking 'Love Me Again'. Immenseley appealing and hard to dismiss, it builds on the foundation laid with 'Feel The Love', all clammering horns and Godzilla-size percussion, offset by Newman's battle-scarred vocal. If the man sounds like he's been through it, he has. Last year he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumour, the discovery of which prompted him to get out and make a go of things in music, admitting he was recovering in hospital the first time he heard himself on the radio. “That was quite surreal. The nurse was quite fit too, so it was good to turn around and say, ‘That’s my tune!’" Unfortunately nothing on his album can quite catch 'Love Me Again', but it's not for nothing. This is definitely one to watch.
43. Desert Night - RÜFÜS
Australian music has enjoyed its most successful year in ARIA history with a total of 13 Aussie acts charting No. 1 albums in 2013, one of them by indie dance trio RÜFÜS whose Atlas debuted in pole position. Like fellow Sydney-based electromen Empire Of The Sun, they're an act who make dance to soundtrack the sunset rather than a hands-in-the-air style rave. Album highlight 'Desert Night' represents the best they have to offer, floating out to the aerosphere on a bed of soft bleeps and synths before its crashing drum-break reels everything back in.
42. Another Love - Tom Odell
Could it be true that young starlets have an easier time breaking through than their male counterparts? The now-infamous review by NME of Tom Odell's Long Way Down was as scathing as they come. A brutal and rare 0/10 score and a write up so harsh it branded him, "a virulent dose of musical syphilis", it made me wonder why releases from Lana Del Rey or Adele or even Lorde hadn't been lashed with the same contempt. After all, they're singing about comparable topics, and their lyrics are underscored by similar gloomy adaptations, so why the double standard? I think it speaks to a well observed yet quietly accepted notion that sensitive male singer/songwriters should be seen and not heard. The affliction felt by fans of James Blunt and Colplay is now currently festering in the young admirers of Tom Odell. Luckily my taste is varied such that I gave up suffering similar anxieties years ago and I truly believe if you love a song or an artist then that's just that - no justification necessary. Lily Allen (who signed Odell to her label) wasn't quite as forgiving, labelling the publication "a bunch of tits." All fanfare aside, this is a stirring slice of piano pop which deserves to be remembered for much more than this farce.
41. Riptide - Vance Joy
Of all the songs I fall in love with each year I always find one or two so crowded with punchiness and melody that they appear instantly familiar. Aussie Vance Joy blurted lines about everything from Michelle Pfeiffer to the dentist against some pretty stringent ukulele framework, all resulting in one of 2013's best driving songs. Consequently the track was picked up for local adverts and is currently soundtracking GoPro commercials in the US. Supposedly Atlantic have signed Joy to a five-album contract, the first of which I hope expands upon the tremendous promise shown here.
40. I Was a Fool - Tegan and Sara
After closing out the '00s as one of indie pop's most celebrated acts, Tegan and Sara Quin wanted to try something new for their seventh album, a crusade which steered them in the direction of Greg Kurstin, the producer behind hit albums from Lily Allen, Marina And The Diamonds, and P!nk. The duo knew better than to abandon all which made them, but the pop propensity was too apparent for some, particularly when the girls joined Taylor Swift on stage for a performance of 'Closer'. Sure, you could call it selling out, but it's hardly the alternative cred-shredding undertaken by Marilyn Manson this year who wound up purring like an idiot on Avril Lavigne's 'Bad Girl'. The Cyndi Lauper-ish 'Now I'm All Messed Up' is still the album highlight for me, but for singles it has to be 'I Was a Fool', thanks to one of those rare instances where the verses oddly outweigh the chorus. I doubt commercial validation was the only reason Tegan and Sara underwent their pop transformation, the songs are too good for that. Whatever the reason, they wear the genre well.
39. We Are The Same - Lurch & Chief
Proof not every successful Australian release this year was a dance record, Melbourne sexted Lurch & Chief caught my ear with some clamorous indie rock. The track lunges the second you press play, its fetching "doo-ooh-ooh" sucking you in before giving in to that hurricane of a chorus. The his-and-hers lead vocals flirt with disaster by trying to out-passion the other, but the battle never feels like a drawback, it just makes you want to shout along with them. Rock took a bit of a backseat for me this year, but these guys were a definite highlight.
38. All Of Me - John Legend
As a longtime fan of John Legend I'll be the first to admit I can give or take his catalogue depending where the day takes me. But at least once per album I can be guaranteed of a song that makes me remember just why I keep him around. 'Coming Home' from Once Again, 'If You're Out There' from Evolver; straightforward, hearty ballads, standouts to me no matter how commonplace. 'All Of Me' is his best in years. A simple piano-led ballad penned for the one he loves, it shimmers with the same innocence which endeared him to so many on 'Ordinary People'. His version with violinist Lindsey Stirling is equally as grand, underlining the song's almost brittle disposition. Cue thousands of first dances; this will be the wedding song of 2014.
37. Broken - Jake Bugg
Like fellow teen sensation Lorde, Nottingham's Jake Bugg possesses a fascinating skillset well beyond his years. 'Broken' towers above everything else on Bugg's self-titled debut for several reasons, the most obvious to me being its ethereal melody - every piece of it unfolds in just the right place. Moreover his voice is at its rupturing best, especially once those strings quietly seep in on chorus two and he collapses into that showstopping "whoa-o-ah." A staggering talent.
36. Listen To Soul, Listen To Blues - SAFIA
Reminiscent of '90s trip-hop classic '7 Seconds' by Youssou N'Dour & Neneh Cherry, it was naturally love at first listen when I discovered SAFIA's tenebrous masterpiece, 'Listen To Soul, Listen To Blues'. Ben Woolner's fractured, androgyne vocal lures you from the very beginning, sounding at once both vaporous and incredibly well-built. And it needs to be to remain firm against that turbulent backdrop which subsumes everything from shrill beeps and feeps to some pretty colossal and wintry drum-n-bass. The song is a staunch exemplification of the truly rich and contrasting talent drifting out of Australia these days. Do yourself a favour.
35. Need U (100%) - Duke Dumont feat. A*M*E
Dubstep finally fell away this year, giving prominent rise to the rebirth of house on the commercial scope. Duke Dumont's belting 'Need U' was easily 2013's most immediate floor-filler, bringing to mind classic acts from the '80s & '90s club scene like Inner City, Black Box and Technotronic. Flanked by a roaring beat and quivering keyboards, Sierra Leonean-born British singer A*M*E displays marvellous technique keeping pace with the track's exuberant force, which doesn't let up until its burning, sweaty, all-consuming four minutes are up. A sheer delight.
34. Acapella - Karmin
So bad it can only be good. 'Acapella' unashamedly displays zero emotion along with verses devoid of humour (despite being chock full of witty banter). You could argue it was destined to sink on arrival, but there is a precise reason it works and that is Karmin themselves. They are a duo very aware of their nuisance factor. A short career built on valley-girl-speak and stupidly digestible hooks points to nothing else. And understanding they are in on the joke is surely the only way anyone could idulge Amy Heidemann screeching in that ridiculous falsetto midway through. By then you realise the duo's tongue isn't so much in its cheek as it is poking a hole right through it - the musical equivalent of an internet meme. And in my opinion realising this is a vital pre-requisite of the listener because taking 'Acapella' on face value diminishes all possibility of a guilty pleasure, a defining attribute which has gotten the better of pop-lite stars such as Ke$ha and Cher Lloyd, both considerably less tolerable now than when they debuted. And if you're still not sold just download the instrumental, that beat knocks.
33. Given The Chance - The Kite String Tangle
Danny Harley is a wonder. An extensive background in musical arrangement and being inspired by nu gaze and dream pop acts such as Active Child, Bon Iver and SBTRKT led Brisbane native Harley to form one man electronica project The Kite String Tangle. Admitting his lyrics are often just words until he finds meaning in them, it's the obvious ambient backdrops which are the inspirational force behind The Kite's woebegone creations. 'Given The Chance' in particular accentuates the sound and feeling he was going for, its ceaseless refrain, "one step at a time" playing out like a mantra over a plethora of sounds far too abated to individualise.
32. Feels Like - Peking Duk
Capping off a fantastic year in Australian dance music, Canberra duo Peking Duk have produced some of the finest electro house and indie dance music of 2013, quickly earning them a reputation on the festival circuit and placing them in esteemed company with established Aussie acts Miami Horror, Pnau and Bag Raiders. I've always had an immediate connection to softened dance tracks, and what's exciting to me is Peking Duk have proven themselves capable of catering to both sides of the genre, having also smashed it out of the park on last year's hard-hitting 'The Way You Are', an almost paradoxical forerunner to the subdued melody of 'Feels Like'. I can't wait for a full-length release from these guys.
31. Radioactive - Imagine Dragons
Far from an immediate favourite, the biggest rock song of the year turned out to be the dark horse to outrun all others for me in 2013. Perchance it was thanks to its unmitigated support at radio or its playful, almost disproportionate video which helped it to criss-cross into my system as both were rather uncompromising in their approach, but I believe it's because the song is just that damn mighty. Those bone-crushing drums and barbarous backing chants are so incontestably thrilling they border on addictive. A record-breaking multi-format smash in the US and a Top 5 success in over ten countries, 'Radioactive' is best summed up by pop song reporter Jet Black, who spoke to Billboard amid its meteoric rise, "'Radioactive' is a little alternative, a little pop, a little dubstep… the best of three big genres." As expected, a nod came through for Grammy Record Of The Year; well-earned recognition for the Vegas four-piece and one of my most admired producers, Alex da Kid.
30. Bed Peace - Jhené Aiko feat. Childish Gambino
In what was a refreshing display for not only R&B but popular music in general, Jhené Aiko's wish list for the perfect day, the stunningly drowsy 'Bed Peace', stood tall for several reasons, but most notably for its rejuvenating narrative - the type normally exhibited by a male. "If I had it my way I'd roll out of bed / Say bout 2:30 midday / Hit the blunt then / Hit you up to come over to my place / You show up right away / We make love and then we fuck / And then you'd give me my space." Reading them back obviously don't do her words justice, as only when experienced in the tune's distinctly languid context do the lyrics paint the full picture of the song's leisurely glory. I still await a punchline any time Gambino turns up thanks to his work on the magnificent Community, but here he's accordingly dispirited, "Curled up with my head on your chest / It's the best remedy for the pain and the stress." It's a feeling and delivery not dissimilar to that of his other 2013 standout, the brilliant '3005'.
29. Power Trip - J. Cole feat. Miguel
2 from 2 with their collaborations, I find it interesting that J. Cole & Miguel's hook-ups have played a genre role-reversal of sorts. The R&B star's 'All I Want Is You' sounded gritty and was driven by a heavy hip-hop shuffle whereas 'Power Trip' coasts out of your speakers like a Luther Vandross ballad. Even when it's just Cole and that bass line the song practically drips with melody, but it would be nothing without that chorus. In a way both songs defy urban music convention without relying on grandiose statements or the need to bait controversy. Bring on a full-blown joint album.
28. Cups - Anna Kendrick
Even after its virtual slicing and dicing at the introduction of data-enhancing formulas like audio streaming and YouTube plays, I am still an avid viewer of Billboard's Hot 100 week in, week out. For chart whores and probably some artists it certainly feels like a skewed tally compared to the one we grew up studying, but it remains the standard measure of popular music it always has. One characteristic the changes thankfully haven't diminished is the Hot 100's classic "sleeper" hit. Each year the chart reflects maybe two or three singles which take a significant amount of time in which to triumph, but the timeline of 'Cups' places it in rare company indeed, completing the fourth-longest ascent to the Top 10 for a woman in the chart's 55-year history, placing Kendrick behind Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill (with two hits). What makes 'Cups' shine just a little brighter is that it's purely pop, not benefitting from country crossover success like the hits of the women she trails. For the better half of this year I was unaware 'Cups' had undergone an instrument-infused transformation as the song hasn't blown up worldwide like it did in the US. And in truth I prefer the track in its original soundtrack form. The performance Becca gives for her audition piece in Pitch Perfect may have been short but it was simple and charismatic, and I feel a lot of that is lost with its Phillip Phillips-style makeover. Nevertheless I'm delighted over the song's success being such a fan of the film and of Kendrick herself, but the inclusion of 'Cups' in this year's countdown is credited solely to the untouched version.
27. Bad - Wale feat. Tiara Thomas
In a very hit-or-miss year for hip-hop, the genre's lack of presence in the Hot 100's Top 10 gave credence to the sentiment that today's rappers are focusing more energy on assembling a respectable body of work than they are trying to pump out the hits. Wale's short history of rapid releases shows he's an artist constantly on the go, and with each set he's unraveled a little more, the finely crafted 'Bad' even trumping previous best 'Lotus Flower Bomb'. I'd like to see more of these desirous tracks from him, or any hip-hop artist, really. Sadly the song's star Tiara Thomas suffered a falling out with the rapper after reportedly signing with Interscope and as such was lifted from the record and replaced by Rihanna on the track's official remix. While that was fun, nothing compares to the original.
26. Threads Of Silence - Karise Eden
Several disappointing realities surface during the hangover of singing competition shows. The winner is announced, the series has wrapped. Viewers and subsequent fans which have carried over can now relax and watch as the victor's prize of a recording contract is mishandled yet again, with most of the budget blown on the Christmas trading period like every year before. Then what? Some fare better than others, managing against odds to release a legitimate studio album. However, most wind up saddled alongside ex-Big Brother housemates on the club circuit, or worse; on Dancing With The Stars. It's an unsatisfying truth that these programs don't nurture the frangible recording careers of their stars, but in fairness you could argue that half of these artists aren't willing to uphold their end of the bargain once the circus has left town. After winning The Voice in 2012 Karise Eden took the express train to obscurity, admitting early on that the "rough diamond" nature of her voice also extended to her incredibly shy personality. Maybe it's because we've heard the rags-to-riches story a thousand times since the birth of Idol that audiences have grown to be pessimistic. Eden mentioned - but didn't play up the fact - that she'd lived in over 20 refuge centres as a teenager, but after being bombarded with the same tales over the course of a decade a piece of me had simply switched off. It wasn't until she resurfaced mid-2013 with the enthralling 'Threads Of Silence' that I truly sat up and took notice. Penned with Sacha Skarbek (best known for his work with Adele and Lana Del Rey, and more recently on Miley's 'Wrecking Ball'), it's hardly easy listening, but a gripping four minutes nonetheless. Her voice is one thing, and there's nothing I could add about it which hasn't been said before. But her control over it is the critical element for me. The passion and absolute vexation she exudes is essential listening for any music lover.
25. White Noise - Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge
Surrey brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence are both '90s kids whose dreams of impacting the dance scene with their esoteric house-influenced beats are well and truly coming true. In under three years they've gone from small-time club act to playing Coachella, and recently earned a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Album. Enthusiasts of the genre are famous for their hostility where hooks and choruses are concerned, but Disclosure seem to have bridged a gap of sorts. Their debut Settle is peppered with the high society of Britain's new school, the likes of London Grammar, Jessie Ware and Sam Smith bringing the boys' pulsing beats to life. But the best was ultimately reserved for AlunaGeorge, the brothers wisely not playing down Aluna Francis's childlike vocals. For it's her demure and timid delivery which wins out, offset by that chugging beat and bubble-popping sound effect every step of the way. By the time she wade's through the song's second chorus to deliver the biting line, "You just want to keep me on repeat and hear me crying", comparisons to dance empress Robyn are impossible to shake. Flawless.
24. Without Me - Fantasia feat. Kelly Rowland & Missy Elliott
While 2013 may have been kinder to R&B than in recent years the reality persists that until something or someone truly revolutionary (or quite possibly the opposite) gets to work it will remain kept at a distance anytime a snapshot of modern music is taken. Fantasia Barrino will never be the one to bring it back, but thankfully she's still in the game and attempting something new - or at least beyond her comfort zone. Cooked up late at night after a heated argument, the American Idol champ along with producer Harmony Samuels set about putting an audacious man in his place, fortuitously awakening a sassier and dare I say it sexier Fantasia in the process. Aided by an in-form Kelly Rowland (shades of whose 'Motivation' are difficult to overlook) and a better-than-expected video, the project tallied up a rare win for the modern genre. My only gripe is that Missy appears to be on auto-pilot. Nevertheless I maintain that her inclusion on any record these days only continues to build the anticipation for the true queen of hip-hop to make her return.
23. Do I Wanna Know? - Arctic Monkeys
Not in a million years would I have believed an Arctic Monkeys record inspired by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg would actualise, let alone prosper. These are lads who smashed onto the scene ripping and flailing about like headless chickens, drawing parallels to The Strokes and even early Nirvana. Five albums deep they've taken a risk and presumably some good advice; for an act to maintain factions of success, relevance and influence they must constantly be evolving and pushing themselves. In this case they may have pushed their loyal audience slightly further than envisaged, but the acquisition of new or more invested fans is surely a satisfactory trade. The earth-splitting drums and G-funk intonation aren't as pronounced as on follow-up single, 'Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?', but 'Do I Wanna Know?' wins out on melody alone. Once the sleazy guitar riff gives way to the bridge you're already sold on the hook, but not until the chorus slams into focus awash with Alex Turner's kaleidoscopic vocals is the song's potency truly realised.
22. Body Party - Ciara
Fans of contemporary R&B can be forgiven for countless frustrations aired throughout the genre's steady decline in recent years. Albums and artists suffer more pushbacks, setbacks and clapbacks than any other mainstream category. Support from labels is not what it used to be, and fanbases are more callous than ever, so when an artist like Ciara puts forth or even announces a new offering the probability of that era staying on its intended course is often extinguished. Hence the Atlanta native's One Woman Army project emerging close to two years ago before being temporarily suspended on the back of two underperforming singles in 'Sorry' and 'Got Me Good', eventually being scrapped altogether in favour of more popular producers and a decidedly less ostentatious title; Ciara. In what became a breakthrough year for producer Mike Will Made It, he discerningly steered away from having her sing anything beyond her bar, and even though such subject matters and sounds have become purely habitual for her now, it's not like we'd really want to hear anything else. Widely regarded as her best single since 2006's 'Promise', 'Body Party' follows a similar trajectory with its suggestive murmurs and cutting percussion, aided by the perdurable attitude of its star and a fantastic sample in the form of 'My Boo' by Ghost Town DJ's.
21. Sacrilege - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
In what has been a red-letter year for TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek, he has enjoyed success both criticially and commercially by producing some of the most outstanding alternative rock and pop titles of the past eighteen months. Tracks from Oh Land, Bat For Lashes and Beady Eye are among favourites, and his overseeing of Kelis's upcoming album is sure to be a perfect match. However it was YYY's 'Sacrilege' which really emphasized his golden touch. Karen O's vocals are extraordinary, even more so than usual, which actually prompted the producer to comment, "Karen is the most consistent person I know with singing," he said. "She can sing a part and duplicate it 1,000 times and it's identical. I've never seen anything like it. She has an accidental finesse about her." Of course none of this comes as a surprise to longtime fans of her voice or the trio, but what does come as a surprise is the introduction of the gospel choir Broadway Inspirational Voices at the 2:18 mark, seemingly out of thin air. Their inclusion adds an unexpected level of wonder to this already bewitching number. Their live rendition (complete with choir) on Letterman is a must-watch. Welcome back.
20. Hold On, We're Going Home - Drake feat. Majid Jordan
From day one Drake set himself apart from other hip-hoppers with not just his ability but his strength to rap and sing on the same song, a talent usually reserved for the genre's female counterparts. But in truth he goes hardest when he chooses one or the other. And on the R. Kelly-ish 'Hold On', sounds better than ever. A partner in sound to one of his best, the quiescent 'Find Your Love', 'Hold On' is impelled by a sparse but plentiful beat and slick bassline, with the rapper declaring he and producer Noah "40" Shebib were "humbly attempting" to channel the illustrious magicianship of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones in the studio. In featuring his protégés Majid Jordan on the record, Drake confessed that this was unashamedly not a rap song. "In approaching this album I was like man, it would be great if we had a record that was played at weddings in 10 years or that people that are away from their families in the army could listen to. Something that just [has] timeless writing, timeless melody." That's a given.
19. Wrecking Ball - Miley Cyrus
If I had a dollar for every time this year I heard somebody say when referring to Miley, "the saddest part is that the music is actually good", I'd be a very rich man. Indeed, if I also had a dollar for every time I'd said it myself I could probably retire. The time-honoured aphorism was never truer this year than when 'Wrecking Ball' made its behemothic impact. Pandemonium aside, or perhaps thanks in part to it, this is a towering piece of pop/rock on par with the classic female power ballads of the '80s it echoes so perceptibly. But then anyone who's followed her career even casually will be conscious of the fact that this performance was by no means anomalous. Miley can sing, and despite 'Wrecking Ball''s preposterous video she can actually express emotion without hamming it up. As Pharrell referenced when warning everyone not to rush to judgment on the star, anybody skeptical of her capabilities need only look to her cover of godmother Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' for testimony. I liken the mayhem to Christina Aguilera's Stripped era. 'Dirrty' and its evocative filmclip incited an uproar not unlike the one currently staring the former child star down, however follow-up 'Beautiful' is the one people remember today. Decades from now when the fracas has dissipated and gravity has zeroed in Miley will still have 'Wrecking Ball'.
18. Blind - Hurts
As far as melodramatic promulgations go there are few who nail them with the impressive gusto of Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson. Left in a lesser band's hands the line "Cut out my eyes / and leave me blind" might come off as contrived, even silly. What Hurts understand better than so many others is the commitment required to play such grandiloquent sadsacks. This is not an uplifting duo and they clearly don't aspire to be one, but by some twist their music is oddly comforting, strangely familiar. And despite appearing effortless it surely takes a lot of work to be this despondent. Prior to their second album Exile the band had drawn comparisons to synthpop and new wave pioneers such as Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears and Pet Shop Boys, however 'Blind' puts them in a completely different frame with its stadium-baiting chorus lifted straight from the Coldplay handbook.
17. Flatline - Mutya Keisha Siobhan
So much of the Sugababes and its revolving door has been documented over the years that the mere thought of referencing it here feels unproductive. Thank God then, that its three founding members not only patched things up, but gave us something so rich and winsome as 'Flatline' to compensate. Unoficially re-introudcing themselves earlier in the year with their captivating remix cover of Kendrick Lamar's 'Swimming Pools', the girls recalled the same cleanhanded presence from thirteen years ago on lead single 'Overload' and exquisite follow-up 'Run For Cover'. 'Flatline' picks up as if this that's where they left off, mirroring the vocal sheen and almost deadpan delivery they quickly became famous for. I'd even argue the break has done them a world of good; each origibabe sounds more determined and in control than they ever have. Producer Dev Hynes (fresh off the indie success of Solange's True EP) ties everything together beautifully, pulling off a reconciliation well worth its wait. For ridiculous reasons radio has shunned the group and they prove as they did in the Sugababes to not understand the importance of a video treatment, but this is still a reunion that had to happen. Not for the first time, these girls have formed my new favourite group.
16. Primetime - Janelle Monáe feat. Miguel
Despite the criminal censure expressed by her recent Grammy snub, 2013 could only be regarded as a banner year for Janelle Monáe. Beyond securing the likes of Erykah Badu and Prince for her sophomore album (and having the latter send her a singing telegram upon its release), Monáe built upon the psychedelic funk and sensitive soul of her brilliant debut, crafting another bizarre array of suites, ensuring they were just as out there, only slightly more accessible this time around. With that in mind she released the set's third single, the Miguel-assisted Primetime. Her most conventional record to date, the slow jam cooks along at a snail's pace making every twitch and ad-lib sparkle. The constraint makes for an incredible chorus, in which every backing vocal explodes. Enjoying a similar creative and commercial high, Miguel demonstrates why he's one of today's most in-demand R&B artists, injecting both emotion and imagination into his guest appearance. The song's other stars are its supreme instrumentalists. Those hypnotic strings could serve as a wistful film score, and it's surely the aforementioned Prince incognito and uncredited on that sublime guitar solo.
15. Wild For The Night - A$AP Rocky feat. Skrillex & Birdy Nam Nam
Aligning himself with such varied acts as Jessie Ware, Usher and Lana Del Rey has seen Rakim Mayers emerge as the all-embracing one in hip-hop's current circle of pacesetters (the man even nabbed Santigold and Florence Welch for his studio debut). Yet it's arguably his least-inspired union which provides the most stimulating 3½ minutes on the excellent Long. Live. A$AP. Essentially a remix of a remix (the song began life as Birdy Nam Nam's 'Goin' In' before Skrillex reconstructed it as 'Goin' Down'), it's not quite the dubstep nightmare it appears on paper. A$AP's grubby verses are delivered in both his usual crisp and sluggishly-altered form, but neither are a match for the electro house titan's menacing sirens. The two main players seem to have an understanding of each other and more importantly of their respective audiences who have blended around the world in recent years.
14. #Beautiful - Mariah Carey feat. Miguel
Ignoring the hashtag, everything about this pretty little ditty is Mariah back to her best. In hindsight it was probably a blessing that 'Triumphant' misfired as it allowed Mariah her stint on Idol to regroup and get the creative juices flowing, not to mention entice a new brood to join her lambily. Never one to shy away from a collaboration, Mariah is one of the few superstars who manages to make hers worth it 95% of the time. And chemistry with Miguel is definitely one of the reasons '#Beautiful' works as well as it does. Not only did it sound unlike anything on the charts, but it broke new musical ground for Mariah herself. The unmistakable sound of summer gleams off every chord and every note, particularly on that wicked guitar lick and her dazzling layered vocals in the song's closing frame.
13. When I Was Your Man - Bruno Mars
In last year's countdown I made mention of change on the Hot 100 horizon. The commercial ascendancy of alt-tinged pop acts like Gotye, fun. and Alex Clare breathed new life into a Top 40 inundated with a bevy of followers too comfortable with trudging the well-worn path from breakdown to crescendo and back again. In recognising the turning tide these artists signaled it's easy to discount the efforts of the great American male pop star. Dance might be out of favour but by no means has it been shunned, and one imagines it would have been an easy ticket for Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke or Bruno Mars to ride the RedOne wave of redundancy, slap Pitbull's name on it and collect their coins. Thankfully all three had bigger dreams, and in 2014's Top 50 I expect to be writing of the influence their victorious year had on other pop players, specifically Mars with his outstanding 'When I Was Your Man'. The song's haunting piano shares a closeness with its female equivalent of the current age, Adele's 'Someone Like You'. And while it didn't shoot quite as far into the stratosphere, 'When I Was Your Man' accomplished a rare feat by today's standards, becoming the first ballad by a male to sit atop the Hot 100 since James Blunt a whopping seven years ago.
12. We Can't Stop - Miley Cyrus
I honestly haven't formed a conclusive opinion on whether or not the brouhaha which surrounded the release of 'We Can't Stop' was warranted, even after the now infamous VMA performance. A part of me agrees with the outraged parents and family groups (minus the theatrics and religious forcefeeding, of course) because I still can't hear the lyric "tryin' to get a line in the bathroom" without cringing, and no amount of insistence from Mike Will Made It or Smiley herself will convince me she isn't singing, "dancing with Molly". This from a girl who hasn't quite outgrown her Disney fanbase as quickly as she might think. Stack that on top of her pseudo-homegirl makeover and reported failure to recognise who One Direction were because, "it's like, I listen to urban," and it's enough to make you do the technicolour yawn - which funnily enough was about the only thing missing from her ridiculous house party in the song's outlandish video. But then there's the side of me who has always had a strong fondness for good girls gone bad. Are we forgetting she's 20 Y.O.? The trashiness, the trying-too-hard and the uncertainty of it all I find incredibly alluring. However, what still stands taller than both sides of the debate is what a fantastic pop record this is. That melody is simply impossibe to deny, as are those harmonies. Strip it of everything but the keyboard and it would sound like a sweet, fractured fairy tale. I guess some would argue that's especially fitting.
11. Still Into You - Paramore
If a change is indeed as good as a holiday then Paramore have just returned from a first class trip around the globe, all expenses paid. The shock departure of brothers Josh and Zac Farro in 2010 leaves frontwoman Hayley Williams as the group's singular perennial member. Rather than return with all bitter guns blazing the reconstructed trio instead took stock of their situation, seizing the opportunity to re-establish the Paramore brand as a developed and more mature rock outfit. And one with a conclusive theme: Grow Up. On the stinging track of the same name they muse on the art of becoming wiser, "Some of us have to grow up sometimes / and so if I have to / I'm gonna leave you behind." This same weathered attitude takes centre stage on the blistering 'Still Into You'. It would have been so easy for the band to channel all that animosity into a puerile kiss-off along the lines of previous efforts 'Never Let This Go' and 'That's What You Get'. Instead we find Williams gushing over the butterflies and sense of pride gained from nurturing a long term relationship. Thankfully their postpubescent makeover means they rock no less harder, only now when they're shouting it's about the finer things in life.
10. Do What U Want - Lady Gaga feat. R. Kelly
From tour-derailing injuries and well publicised feuds with Perez Hilton and Kelly Osbourne to posting a downright bizarre video of herself practicing The Abramovic Method, it's certainly been a long time between singles for Lady Gaga. Longer still between good ones. The one-two punch of The Fame and its Monster assured us early on that it didn't matter what she wore nor which ridiculous contrivance she'd opted to escort her into an awards show, the music was robust and infectious enough to withstand the commotion. Five years on and the delicate balance has shifted. And hardly surprising given the implacable theatrics she deems necessary even for a day of shopping. 'Applause', while Gaga to the core, was simply insufficient in terms of the pop absurdity her previous hits were brimming with, especially for a comeback. Thankfully 'Do What U Want' made parallel all the imbecility and pop awareness, so much so I wish it had been the lead single. Considering the former's superior chart success ('Applause' recently surpassed 'Bad Romance' becoming the biggest radio hit of her career) I understand the thick-headedness of suggesting a less-favourable track be released in its place, but I think there's still a valuable lesson to be learned. The key component of concoction here isn't the unexpected inclusion of R. Kelly (although he sounds the most exciting he has in years). It's not the two's spirited live performances (some of their best). And it's not even Gaga's devilish growl (an obvious nod to Xtina). It's that 'Do What U Want' is an irrefutable tune first and a spectacle second. More, please.
9. Team - Lorde
Serving as a stark reminder of just how young Auckland's Lorde is, the suitably titled 'Royals' broke a 17 year drought on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart when it became the first solo track by a woman to hit No. 1 since Tracy Bonham's 'Mother Mother' in 1996 - making Lorde herself the only female in her lifetime to reach the summit. But while I recognised the worth in such a sparse and almost perfunctory single dominating charts and airwaves around the world, I must admit 'Royals' never quite did it for me. Not the case with 'Team'. The same basic standards apply (airy synths draped over a minimal hip-hop beat) but the embellishments here are simply that much better. To me the magic of 'Royals' lay in the work of its listener; it was fun but required real effort committing that voluble bridge to memory, whereas the impact of 'Team' is immediate thanks to its killer intro and solid chorus. And it further demonstrated her penchant for the anti-pop life with the baiting line, "I'm kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air / so there." Words possibly not observed by EDM robot David Guetta whose rumoured offer to collaborate she gracefully declined with, "Fuck no. He's so gross." Pure heroine, indeed
8. Can't Hold Us - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton
Of all the terms used to describe Macklemore & Ryan Lewis I think "impressive" sums up their year succinctly. Their trenchant take on hip-hop and its many influences certainly wasn't for everybody, but not through a lack of catering to us all. Their chart-conquering "big three" saw them advocate for everything from bargain shopping to marriage equality. And in between sat their most boisterous offering of all. The manic inflections sprinkled throughout 'Can't Hold Us' are a sheer delight, full of empassioned vocals, blustering horns and na-na-nas, all propelled by a giant galloping beat; the whole thing an obvious after-effect of Kanye's 'Love Lockdown'. Possibly taking another cue from Yeezus, they're an act who've learned early the value of a multifarious discography. That each single shows such diversity and promise from an act this early into their career has surely paved the way for some exhilarating years ahead.
7. Just Give Me a Reason - P!nk feat. Nate Ruess
Three years ago Alecia Moore sat atop Billboard's Hot 100 with party anthem 'Raise Your Glass', an open letter to those who were "wrong in all the right ways." Three Top 10 singles and one child later she wore the tag again as she stormed back to the chart's pole position with the absurdly catchy 'Just Give Me a Reason' - a wistful snapshot of a couple searching for answers and longing for the way forward. The inclusion of Nate Ruess reinforces its charming melody, peaking with their voices fusing beautifully on that dazzling bridge. And in typical dark horse fashion the track has become the pop-rocker's biggest hit to date, reaching Number 1 in over twenty countries some 13 years after her debut. Earlier this year when Billboard released its ranking of Top 100 Artists In Billboard History all the talk expectedly centred around the tally's usual suspects, but quietly nestled just outside the Top 50 was P!nk, which in reality positions her behind a maximum of only five artists with an active Hot 100 career. Considering the majority of The Truth About Love's singles have peaked within the Hot 100's top frame P!nk is set to only climb higher. Couple that with her remarkable touring stats and the fact that her albums still sell and you understand why she proves yet again to be the definitive underdog.
6. Young And Beautiful - Lana Del Rey
A distinct aberration '90s enthusiasts like myself will notice between then and now is the apparent lack of movie soundtracks. Growing up major motion picture albums were a chart staple. The likes of The Bodyguard, the Batman installments, Boomerang, Reality Bites, Waiting To Exhale etc. produced brackets of singles which would last as long as the artist's eras they ranked alongside. In the '90s alone there were three soundtracks nominated for the Grammy Album Of The Year. Who could anticipate that ever happening these days? In actuality there are just as many soundtracks released today, the sad truth is that most of them are simply not very good. Baz Luhrmann's re-imagining of The Great Gatsby encircled everything you visualize a spectacle of Luhrmann proportions would, not least among them an extravagant and meaty soundtrack. At its core lies Lana Del Rey's tortured plea for everlasting love, the heartsick 'Young And Beautiful'. The intentionally dolent ballad was penned with producer Rick Nowels, the man behind 'Rooms On Fire' by Stevie Nicks, of which the song and icon's influence on Lana I've always found obvious. 'Young And Beautiful''s aching refrain mirrors Daisy Buchanan's masked afflictions impeccably, thanks in large part to the Twin Peaks-like histrionics already burnished on 'Video Games', 'Ride' and the orginal version of 'Summertime Sadness'.
5. Black Skinhead - Kanye West
Coming down from the collaborative high that saw 2011's savvy and triumphant Watch The Throne conquer both charts and professional ratings, it's been an intriguing few months watching two of hip-hop's leaders approah the "morning after." Ignoring last year's insipid compilation, Cruel Summer, 2013 brought the first albums from Kanye West and Jay Z since wrapping their joint venture, the former still having things to say (will he ever stop?) while the latter is clearly enduring a sizable stretch of writer's block, or whatever its innovative equal is called. Be it bad luck or bad management, it's unfortunate that Jay Z ascended to the head of hip-hop's pack well after his creative peak, as I'm yet to hear anything past 2003 which warrants his title as king more than overseeing an empire or hanging with Bono does. The glaring difference between Jay Z and his former pupil is that Kanye is still hungry. Maybe not for success in the material sense, but definitely for artistic headway. 'Black Skinhead', like its parent album Yeesuz, is intentionally abrasive and repugnant because although six or seven albums in, the man still bears a prodding need to push himself and his audience, even if that means releasing a disc knowing full well there's not a hit song on it (hell, there's barely even cover art). 'Skinhead''s raw, distorted vocal-intro bites right out of the gate, contorting like mad before crumpling into those barreling drums which, if they're not lifted from Marilyn Manson's 'Beautiful People', are a phenomenal impression thereof. The menacing short breaths parroted throughout the song are deliberately unnerving, but a key ingredient like every other twisted oddity Kanye and producers Daft Punk hiss at us. Brilliant, just as anticpated.
4. Blurred Lines - Robin Thicke feat. T.I. & Pharrell
It was the collective sigh heard around the world when 'Blurred Lines' began to smash. The die-hards sighed in relief, for Robin Thicke was now a legitimate success story a decade after he debuted, with not only the song of the U.S. summer but one of the biggest international hits in years. Elitists sighed in frustration, because they were there for every 'Sex Therapy', 'Meiple', 'Sidestep' and 'Love After War' while the general music-buying public happily slept on them. However the loudest sigh was let out by the man himself, giddily accepting that his newfound success meant never having to do a show like Duets again. The resurgence of Pharrell brought with it the spark needed to set a collaboration on fire, but while he and T.I. played lively parts they weren't cardinal to the song's success. This track is so deliciously scintillating that its featured guests are merely trimming. And that's what Thicke needs to take from this breakthrough. Those who have listened know he's always had the goods, now 'Blurred Lines' is his own masterclass in how to own it. If he delivers every track with the same tenacity there's no reason him and his BIG D won't be a Hot 100 fixture all on their own.
3. Stay - Rihanna feat. Mikky Ekko
Robyn Fenty's post-Rated R stream of monstrous chart-toppers has been so raucous and club-friendly that it's easy to forget she can actually carry a ballad further than 'Unfaithful' or 'Take a Bow' would have you believe. Her delivery here was poised and unassuming, and served as a brilliant companion to the equally subdued 'Diamonds'. Justin Parker was responsible for producing two of 2012's finest singles in Lana Del Rey's 'National Anthem' and Bat For Lashes' 'Laura' (both as deliberately forlorn as 'Stay'), and with co-writer and feature Mikky Ekko he again shows how the bare essentials are all you need to resonate with millions. What 'Stay' also underlined for lovers of pop music is that we're finally moving past being impressed by Rihanna's unforeseen lastingess and are instead transfixed by the sheer quality of her catalogue, rather than the rate at which she expands it.
2. Get Lucky - Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
Certainly one of the year's most polarizing tunes came courtesy of Daft Punk. Their first single proper in over seven years arrived as out-of-the-blue as that of 2013's other returning heavyweight, Justin Timberlake, ending a similar hiatus with his equally refined 'Suit & Tie'. Interestingly, the French duo employed the man who helped make Timberlake's debut era the criticial and commercial success it was. Pharrell Williams - breaking an artistic interval of his own - shone as the group's transitory frontman on a track which drew as much praise as it did criticism. Its magic lies mostly in its simplicity, and it was those clean lines which created the great divide, even prompting ex-Oasis lead singer Liam Gallagher to contest he "could write that in a fucking hour." Perhaps he could, but he didn't, nor did anybody else. In reimagining dance music for a 2013 audience (using live instruments, recruiting seasoned veterans to play them) Daft Punk presented listeners with a sleek and gleeming alternative of the genre. No, it's not complex, but who made up the rule that the best songs always are?
1. Q.U.E.E.N. - Janelle Monáe feat. Erykah Badu
If I'm at a loss trying to start this review then I can't imagine the pains Janelle Monáe put herself through writing this masterpiece. In a few not-so-short years Bad Boy's only relevant signee has well and truly fashioned her own lane. And on 'Q.U.E.E.N.' she reaffirms her striking individuality like never before. I mean, it says a helluva lot when Erykah Badu is on your song and isn't even the most exciting part. Not that Badoula Oblongata doesn't show out like always, moreso that 'Q.U.E.E.N.' is a blink-or-miss extravaganza on par with her quotidian greatness. It's an astonishing collection of thoughts and questions purposely left open to interpretation. Reflections of insecurities, homosexuality and acceptance abound, layered over a piquant '70s backdrop. The instrumentation throughout is brilliant and worth noting given the two enthralling leading ladies it has to contend with, the project a spectacle even before the arrival of its thrilling Mod Squad-esque video. But obviously nothing stands out quite like Monáe's breathtaking rap. Upon first listen it's jaw-dropping because the song has already taken you in every direction that you're just about ready for the fade out. But as you get used to that groove and settle in to her ever-so-slightly off-pace rhymes you begin to let her message seep in. "Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal." "Why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?" "Categorize me, I defy every label." The way it cuts out so abruptly is clearly intentional, as if to make sure we understand her austerity. I certainly do. This is a woman with things to say, and at the risk of sounding profane I have to draw a kinship to the iconic Janet Jackson as she too at her peak was a woman with things to say who like Janelle Monáe never underestimates the importance of making them sound so damn good.
What I Might Do - Ben Pearce
Reflektor - Arcade Fire
Somebody Else - Mario feat. Nicki Minaj
Ways To Go - Grouplove
Embrace - Goldroom
Work - Iggy Azalea
V.S.O.P. - K. Michelle
Paradise - Cassie feat. Wiz Khalifa
Sonnentanz (Sun Don't Shine) - Klankarussell feat. Will Heard
Belong To The World - The Weeknd